Your whole body (and mind) benefits from your Bikram Yoga practice – literally inside out, bones to the skin. Two key techniques used widely throughout Bikram Yoga are stretching and compression. Often seen as distinct, they are, in fact, very closely related.
Think for a moment about when you last had to stretch up to get something high on a shelf – did you use your fingers, arms, shoulders, or spine? Or did you also use your hips, legs, or feet?
Stretching is always a whole-body activity
Your legs and hips actively provide the foundation, typically extending into the floor to allow the spine, arms, etc., to extend in another direction.
A simple exercise to illustrate this is to:
- Sit up straight on the floor with your legs out in front of you.
- Lock your knees by extending through your heels and flexing your feet, so your heels are slightly off the floor.
- Bring your arms overhead, stretch up and forward out of the waist, and try to touch the ceiling, so your body is at a 45-degree angle.
- Hold it at maximum extension for 15-30 seconds.
Start to notice how much you need to contract your thigh muscles to provide a powerful foundation to try to touch the ceiling – especially the upper thighs right up by the hip crease – the more you stretch, the more you have to use them.
“First your legs stretching, then hips stretching, then lower spine stretching, then whole spine is stretching. Eventually the whole body is stretching, 360-degree angle, inside out, from bones to the skin, coccyx to the toes, coccyx to the forehead.” – Bikram Choudhury
Next time you practice the Standing Separate Leg Stretching or Stretching pose, think of your legs and hip crease. The more you try to touch your head to the floor or your feet, the more you must use your legs.
Compression begins with stretching
We begin with stretching to create the space for the compression, i.e., a lengthening of the torso.
Then comes the throat lock (“throat choked!”) – the lid of the teapot – Jalandhara bandha.
This compression is not like when you are reading your phone and your head drops down. Bring your head back and your chin down so there is a firm compression of the throat. “Compression of the thyroid gland.”
Here’s a simple exercise to illustrate:
- Kneel down
- Bring one foot up in front of you, so you’re standing on one knee and the other foot, with the bent leg at 90 degrees – arms where you are comfortable.
- Chest up (stretch torso to create the space)
- Head back, chin down (“throat choked’)
- Exhale and suck your stomach in towards the back of the spine and hold it in (“exhale breathing”)
- Slowly go down and touch your forehead to your knee. (If you struggle to balance, you can put your hands on the floor.)
If you want to deepen your experience when you’re there, take an inhale and then exhale all the air out and suck your stomach in even more and try to get your head closer to your stomach.
“Marriage between the pancreas and kidneys, thyroid and pituitary glands; extension of the oblongata and medulla; opening the throat and crown chakras. Good for the digestive and endocrine systems, metabolism, body chemistry, and immune system. Compression of the thyroid gland. Compression of the pancreas, extension of the kidneys.” – Bikram Choudhury
Next time you try any of the head-to-knee poses, bring some attention to the foundation of your legs and hips, create the space and keep your head back and chin down.